The Elm Street Book Group met today to discuss Undaunted Courage, a biography of Meriwether Lewis by Stephen Ambrose. We found the narrative of the Lewis and Clark expedition exciting and worth reading, but the other sections of the book seemed to engender less admiration. Most of the group had complaints about Ambrose and the persistent intrusion of his editorial voice. Many of his asides are at odds with the facts. Others are racist, or sexist, or simply puzzling. I was bothered by how enamored Ambrose seems to be with Meriwether Lewis. As a piece at Slate says:
You’ll search Undaunted Courage long and hard for evidence that Meriwether Lewis wasn’t a saint or that the Lewis and Clark expedition wasn’t the most important and glorious event in early American history.
Ambrose constantly praises Lewis’ excellent qualities. He repeatedly ignores his flaws. Whenever Lewis makes an obvious mistake that must be commented upon, Ambrose dismisses it as out of character. Yet I believe that the pattern of these mistakes is indicative of character.
For large stretches of the expedition, there is no surviving record from Lewis. We have only Clark’s words to go by. When Lewis does keeping score, the picture he paints of himself is not as rosy as Ambrose supposes. Here are just a few instances that occur to me off the top of my head:
- He steals a canoe from the Indians.
- He threatens to burn an Indian village after his dog is stolen.
- He attempts to cross the mountains before the pass has cleared (despite repeated warnings that it’s too early.)
- He splits the party as it enters Blackfeet territory.
- He shoots at the Blackfeet.
Lewis has ongoing problems with drinking, gambling, and debt. Ambrose deals with these issues, but in a cursory fashion. I think it’s damning that Lewis is unable to establish a relationship with a woman. Women seemed unwilling to be around him. Why is this? What was there about him that they found so distasteful? I believe he must have had some character flaw.
We discussed how Lewis seems brash and self-assured. He rushes into things. Clark seems to be calmer and a better planner. Whenever they separate, it is Lewis that gets into trouble and Clark who makes it through without incident.
Then there’s Lewis’ complete inattention to duty once he returns from the expedition. He ignores his charge to publish the journals. He spends more than a year as governor of the Louisiana Territory doing nothing.
Undaunted Courage reminded us of The Last of the Mohicans, which we read last year. The frontier adventure, the savagery of the Indians, and the closeness to nature are all similar. In order to highlight the mortality rate of frontiersman, I noted that most of the expedition’s crew members were dead within a decade of returning, some within just a year or two. (And many at the hands of Indians.)
We discussed the clash of cultures. Why did Americans look at Blacks as less-than-human, but consider Indians merely uneducated brethren? Was it skin color? Location? Something else?
I’m under the impression that most of the group enjoyed the book. We found it instructional and entertaining. We just had complaints with Ambrose’s editorial voice. A few of us would have rather had read the journals of Lewis and Clark themselves.
Finally, Rhonda noted that Ambrose was criticized for plagiarism when writing this book.
The Elm Street Book Group has been meeting once a month for over a decade. (We started in November 1996.) Kris selected this book. We held a brunch discussion at our house. In attendance: Kris, J.D., Bernie, Kristi, Lisa, Rhonda, Courtney, Jason, Naomi, Tiffany. Next month: The Long Emergency by James Howard Kunstler (who has a blog called Clusterfuck Nation). April: Life With Father and Mother by Clarence Day.